How Conflict Can Be Good For Your Team

Conflict is inevitable. Organizations are built for conflict. Equally true is that by effectively managing conflict, you can lead your team to better collaboration and performance.

If you were asked to define conflict, what would you say? Most people would say something along the lines of “differences of positions,” “we don’t see it the same,” “disagreement on an issue,” etc.

Misunderstanding or the inability to manage conflict can be costly. There’s the wasted time addressing it, lost productivity, employee turnover, absenteeism and health costs, poor decision making and lack of relationships. Positive relationships built on trust allow people to get work done quicker and more creatively.

Now, if you were asked to define conflict with a positive outcome, what would you say? We would hear phrases such as, “different ideas that generate solutions,” “agreement on where we agree and discussion on the other,” “attention to what’s our interest” etc. It even feels differently to think about the positive role of conflict.

When conflict is managed, the conversation and space allow collaboration to foster leading to enterprisewide thinking, faster internal decision making, limited bias and reduced costs by aligning resources and an organizational culture that values an enterprise perspective. Very little of these benefits are available without conflict management. That’s why we need to reframe conflict in a positive lens.

Three Conflict Management Practices

Practice 1: Managing Ourselves

Part of our role is to reframe conflict from personal disagreements to organizational interest. We can start by leaving out the word “you” when we discuss differences in our opinions. “You” often personalizes conflict that triggers an emotional reaction. Think about a conflict you might be having now or have just had. How did you react? Did that become part of the conflict itself? So, we need to know our triggers and, importantly, understand why these are triggers for us. The destructive behaviors of winning at all costs or becoming visibly angry/emotional don’t move toward a successful resolution. It takes the issue and makes it personal.

Expressing emotions during a conflict is important, however, it’s how we choose to express them. We can express those emotions by articulating the impact the conflict is having on us or others. Start with using “I” in lieu of “you did this.”

Practice 2: Managing the Conflict

Managing disagreements at the point of conflict improves relationships amongst employees and creates behaviors that drive collaboration. Three great ways are to:

  • Explore Alternative Solutions. Ask the question “What are we trying to solve?” Then take turns to identify alternative solutions seen from the other person’s perspective.
  • Ask Six OEQs. Have each person ask open-ended questions that begin with what, where, when, how and who about the other people’s proposals. Never ask why, as doing so tends to make the person defensive rather than explanatory. In this way, we identify real issues as it relates to the business mission.
  • Delay. Adding time during the conflict can greatly calm the situation. Then, if we can identify how we might be contributing to the conflict, we are in a better place to own our behavior or give appropriate feedback.

Practice 3: Know When to Involve Management

As conflicts are passed up, perspectives begin to disappear. Eventually, the conflict has escalated to the senior executive level, many who are too far removed from the real issue at hand. In addition, it disempowers staff members, especially when the issue involves managers.

A good rule to escalation is to escalate when the issue crosses functional areas. In the functional areas, it should be handled by the staff members. Escalated conflict resolution should be transparent. This builds trust among employees because they are given clear communication about the resolution. Transparency will increase the staff’s willingness to implement the decision.

Some Closing Thoughts

We need conflict; without it, we limit creativity, collaboration and our social capital. However, we need to reframe it as differences in how we see things and as having a positive outcome.

We are all being asked to do more with less and to work across organizational boundaries. The need for cross-collaboration within an organization makes it necessary to manage conflict and relationships vertically and horizontally.

Now, what do you do to manage conflict with your boss?

Andrew Rahaman is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Alexa McKenna

Great post Andrew! I definitely agree that conflict is needed for collaboration and creativity. It would be boring if everyone had the same ideas.